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Brains trust: Mal Meninga and Wayne Bennett.

No-one has had a greater influence on State of Origin in the concept's 40-year history, but on the eve of the series opener in Adelaide Mal Meninga has revealed how he decided to quit coaching before becoming Queensland's most successful mentor – and Wayne Bennett's role in him taking the job.

Meninga, who made the first of his 32 Origin appearances in the inaugural match in 1980, returns to the Queensland stage on Wednesday as Bennett's assistant after the Broncos appointment of Kevin Walters led to them renewing an association that began 44-years ago at Souths Magpies in Brisbane.

It is Bennett's fourth stint as Maroons coach – having overseen five series wins in seven years (1986-88, 1998 and 2001-2003) – but Meninga has surpassed him as Queensland's most successful Origin mentor after triumphing in nine of his 10 series in charge from 2006 to 2015.

However, after coaching the Raiders for five seasons from 1997 until 2001 Meninga had decided it was no longer a career he wanted to pursue.

Mal Meninga in action for the Maroons in 1983.
Mal Meninga in action for the Maroons in 1983. ©NRL Photos

NSW's third consecutive series win in 2005 and the influence of Bennett, who had been behind Meninga's move to Canberra as a player in 1986, changed his mind.

"I felt that I could help but it took a while to make the decision because when I left the Raiders I made a decision that I didn't want to coach anymore," Meninga said.

"I did my five years there and I did a bit of study and I felt that coaching from a club point of view week-in and week-out wasn't for me. That's not my personality, so I did a business degree and I made a decision that I wanted to go and do other things in life.

"I was sitting with all the ex-players watching that last game at Lang Park in 2005 and everyone was bagging the team, and for me that is not what being a Queenslander is, so I felt that if you want to do something about it you need to be involved.

"Wayne was a part of that decision to appoint me in 2006. He had set up the Emerging Origin squads and I spoke at some of those camps. I then coached the Brisbane City side against Queensland Country and we had a bit of success so they threw up my name after the 2005 series."

The rest is history and Origin has evolved into one of the biggest sporting events in Australia each year, despite the Maroons winning eight consecutive series under Meninga with the likes of Billy Slater, Darren Lockyer, Johnathan Thurston, Cameron Smith, Greg Inglis and Cooper Cronk.

The historic match at Adelaide Oval on Wednesday night was preceded by the NRL taking Origin to Perth for the first time last season, while Melbourne has hosted one game of every third series since 2006.

However, Meninga remembers when the concept wasn't as widely accepted and the first Origin in 1980 at Lang Park only went ahead after NSW ensured the third match of the annual interstate series – played under residency rules – was a dead rubber by winning the opening two games.

"Interstate footy was dying, there is no denying that but Origin was a gamble initially," Meninga said. "A lot of people believed in it and a lot of people didn't.

"The first Origin series wasn't until 1982 so it took a couple of years for everyone to realise that this is a great concept and start that great rivalry between the states but it is huge now, as we know."

Wayne Bennett is chaired off by Martin Bella and Wally Lewis after the 1987 series win.
Wayne Bennett is chaired off by Martin Bella and Wally Lewis after the 1987 series win. ©NRL Photos

'Nothing much has changed, to be honest'

Meninga was a 20-year-old when he played at centre in the first Origin alongside the likes of Arthur Beetson, John Lang, Rod Reddy and Kerry Boustead, who had previously been forced to play for NSW against Queensland because they were contracted to Sydney-based clubs.

After a playing career that finished in 1994 and 10 years as Maroons coach, Meninga insists the passion for the Queensland jersey that inspired the historic 20-10 victory has remained unchanged for 40 years.

"Origin has evolved into a great marketing and commercial piece for the game," Meninga said. "It is breaking new horizons by playing in Adelaide for the first time and Perth last year, so it is certainly a showpiece to expand our great game from an audience point of view.

"It has grown to the point where the whole concept of Origin is bigger than the game at times but from a footy point of view nothing much has changed, to be honest. The same traits we needed back in 1980 are still conducive today.

"NSW had won for 20 years in a row prior to Origin so I think a strong Queensland team is important. It keeps people interested in our game and it keeps participation rates up.

"You talk to any Queensland kid growing up in an era where we are successful and they all want to play for Queensland so as long as that rivalry and that tribalism continues it will always be a showpiece for our game."

Bennett calms young Maroons side

A partnership 44 years in the making

With the retirement of many of the superstars who helped the Maroons to dominate from 2006 to 2017, losing just one series in 12 years, the pendulum has now turned and NSW are seeking to retain the State of Origin Shield for a third consecutive season.

Injuries, suspensions and poor form have left Bennett with the most inexperienced Queensland team since the beginning of his last tenure in 2001 but Meninga has faith in the band of rookies who will pull on the Maroons jersey for the first time in Adelaide.

"I played for Queensland when I was 19 and it didn't affect me. You have got to start somewhere," he said. "They are talented players and I can assure you they are all passionate about the Queensland jersey because they have grown up watching successful Queensland teams."

What the Maroons lack in on-field experience they make up for in the coaching box with Meninga having been involved in 23 previous Origin campaigns as a player or coach since 1980 and Bennett now in his eighth series as Queensland mentor.

Blues v Maroons - Origin I

Their association began at the Queensland Police Academy in 1976 and continued with Souths Magpies in Brisbane, where Meninga was a junior representative player and Bennett coached the academy team.

"It precedes Origin," Meninga said. "I played junior representative footy for Souths and Wayne was always around. He became the coach of Souths Magpies in 1977 so it was just a natural progression for me through the junior grades into the Brisbane Rugby League comp.

"Because he was coaching me in 1985, I leant on his advice and he had a good relationship with Don Furner [senior] so that's how I went to Canberra.

"He coached Souths to the premiership in 1985 but he wasn't allowed to coach in 1986 because he was the head honcho of the development programs for the QRL so he came down to Canberra in 1987 at the invitation of Don because wanted to get into coaching."

After helping to guide the Raiders to their first grand final in 1987, Bennett returned to Brisbane to become the inaugural Broncos coach while Meninga stayed in Canberra and won three premierships before retiring in 1994.

However, the pair have remained close and when Queensland were left without a coach after Walters was appointed to the Broncos job, Bennett put his hand up and asked Meninga to assist him.

"I am fortunate to have the opportunity to work with Wayne in State of Origin and we are looking forward to the series," Meninga said.

Acknowledgement of Country

Canberra Raiders respect and honour the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.